Officials and activists are asking the county courts to make a newly-proposed mental health jail diversion program more inclusive.
Arlington and Fairfax public defenders joined several advocates during a Thursday evening meeting about the proposal, and urged county officials to broaden the mental illnesses diagnoses accepted in the program and not require plea bargains as a participation requirement.
Brad Haywood, who leads the Office of the Public Defender for Arlington County and the City of Falls Church, shared a list of changes his office wants the county to make to the proposal before the county submits the application to the Virginia Supreme Court.
Juliet Hiznay, a special education attorney by training, joined him on Thursday to express concern that only some “serious mental illnesses” were considered shoe-ins for the program, which is called the Behavioral Health Docket.
Hiznay said she was worried that people with developmental disabilities (like ADD or autism) could also benefit from the court-supervised treatment plan, but would be considered “exceptions” under the current eligibility criteria.
Much of the evening focused on discussing whether the county should require participants to plead guilty to their charges before participating in the program (as is currently proposed) or allow them to follow the docket program and then have a trail (as Fairfax County does.)
“Because it requires a guilty plea it literally can’t decriminalize mental illness,” said panelist Lisa Dailey, who analyzes and advises mental illness decriminalization policies at the Treatment Advocacy Center. “So if that’s your goal you’re failing right out of the gate.”
When Arlington Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Lisa Tingle asked Fairfax Public Defender Dawn Butorac asks whether the Fairfax docket convicts participants of their charges if they fail out of the program, Butorac said Fairfax prosecutors set no such deals.
“Telling your client ‘if you fail this is what we’re going to do’ is sending the wrong message,” Butorac said.
Haywood pointed out that another benefit of nixing the pre-plea requirement was getting people into treatment fast — something not possible if the county’s tedious discovery process slows down the process.
Haywood also noted that requiring pleas to participate in the mental health service could lead innocent people to say they were guilty in order to access services. He acknowledged that was an “extreme” hypothetical but could be avoided if the county followed Fairfax County’s example of only contending with pleas after a participant finishes their docket treatment plan.
“We are much more inclusive than Arlington,” Butorac said of Fairfax’s docket, which was created after a mentally ill woman was tasered. “When we drafted it, we wanted it to be as inclusive as possible.”
Arlington and Northern Virginia are experiencing a possible outbreak of cases from a particular foodborne illness.
Dozens people in the region are suspected of having contracted a gastrointestinal illness called Cyclosporiasis, according to a spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Health. The outbreak involves “two large businesses” where more than 40 people were sickened, possibly with Cyclosporiasis, as well as 15 confirmed cases of the disease, officials say.
“A food or water source of this outbreak has not yet been identified, and the investigation is ongoing,” said the state health department.
“Cyclosporiasis is an intestinal illness caused by a microscopic parasite,” the department noted in a press release today (Tuesday.) “People can become infected by consuming food or water contaminated with feces or stool that contains the parasite.”
The 15 confirmed cases of people infected with Cyclospora since mid-June compares to eight cases in Northern Virginia by this time last year.
The affected area includes Arlington, Alexandria, Fairfax County and Falls Church.
“Arlington County has… experienced an increase in cases of illness due to Cyclospora,” confirmed epidemiologist Colleen Ryan Smith of Arlington’s Department of Human Services.
“The increase in Arlington… has contributed to the increase in cases noted for Northern Virginia,” added Smith, who said that “specific counts of cases by locality [are] not possible due to patient privacy and confidentiality considerations.”
Officials said they could also not identify the “two large businesses” where dozens were sickened.
Symptoms can begin one week after exposure to the parasite, and typically include explosive diarrhea, stomach cramps, nausea, aching muscles, and a low-grade fever. Symptoms can last days or a month for some, but others can be a carrier of the parasite and experience no symptoms.
Those afflicted can only be diagnosed by a lab test ordered by a doctor.
Health officials have also reported 90 cases of Cyclospora in New York City since January, and over 100 cases in Massachusetts since May. In both areas, the number of cases is approximately three times the normal number officials usually see in a year, and the cause is not yet known.
Officials in all three locales say they are still investigating the cause of the outbreak. Previous outbreaks were linked to contaminated produce.
The full press release is below, after the jump.
Some officials and residents are asking for more time to review a jail diversion program for people with mental illnesses, saying the county developed it without enough public input.
About a hundred people gathered in the County Board’s meeting room Wednesday afternoon for a meeting called after activists requested a chance to weigh in on the new criminal justice program. Attendees expressed general support for the “Behavioral Health Docket” but worried about its requirement that participants plead guilty to participate, adding that the county needed to listen to more members of the public before finalizing the program.
“I think it’s important to keep in mind is that even if the application is a post-plea docket, which is what Judge [Fran] O’Brien would like to see happen, that there’s going to be evolution,” said Department of Human Services (DHS) Director Anita Friedman in an interview. “I think that even if we start post-plea we might add pre-plea later.”
“I think the important thing is not to let perfection be the enemy of good,” she said, noting that the county has revised its other diversion program, Drug Court, many times over the last few years.
The Office of the Executive Secretary of the Supreme Court of Virginia must approve the county’s request to form the diversion program. DHS originally planned to apply for that approval last month before a group of activists and officials, including incoming prosecutor Parisa Dehghani-Tafti, said they hadn’t heard about it and had concerns.
After the meeting, officials did not confirm whether they would extend their plan to submit the application in September, or would schedule additional public meetings.
Chief Public Defender Brad Haywood was one of the officials who said he hadn’t heard about the application until very recently. On Wednesday, Haywood said he still supported for the docket but reiterated concerns about the post-plea condition.
“I really want to make sure that as many people as possible are getting into this program, and getting in as quickly as possible,” he said, adding that requiring pleas could “dramatically reduce” the number of participants and how fast they can join it.
The Behavioral Health Docket will accept participants who have pled guilty to a misdemeanor offense, or a felony reduced to a misdemeanor, and reside in Arlington, according to a program description obtained via a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. People with a history of felony convictions, sexual offenses, or have active warrants out for their arrest in other jurisdictions cannot participate, per a copy of the application ARLnow obtained after filing a FOIA request.
Participants would have to meet weekly in court as well as their probation officer, mental health clinician, per the application. Participants will also have to pass drug and alcohol screenings, take any medications prescribed, participate in activities like volunteer work or employment, and stay clear of any new arrests. Over time, participants will meet less frequently as they work towards a “graduation” where they’ll be supervised for another 90 days.
“That’s why it’s called a therapeutic docket,” said Judge O’Brien. “It’s designed to help people with mental illness and designed to help keep them on a path that keeps them out of the criminal justice system.”
She told the audience that it was imperative to move quickly because of the sheer number of people affected. Earlier that day, she said five people on her docket were clients of the county’s behavioral health services and where “chronic violators” of their parole. Recently, she said one defendant disappeared after appearing to get better and family members were concerned he was off his medications.
“All I wanted to do is try to find him before he got too far gone,” said O’Brien. “Because I didn’t have that power because he wasn’t on my docket, so I had to issue a warrant for his arrest.”
Arlington County is considering a new program to divert people with mental illnesses into treatment instead of jail.
The proposed program would waive incarceration for people with mental illnesses who are convicted of non-violent misdemeanors if they agree to an intensive treatment program supervised by a judge. All the officials who spoke to ARLnow about the program supported it, but some weren’t aware the county was working on the program and said they had little opportunity to add input.
The Arlington County’s Department of Human Services is spearheading the program. A spokesman told ARLnow on June 27 that in response to “recent requests” it would host a public meeting on the so-called Behavioral Health Docket on Wednesday, July 17 at 3 p.m. The location of the meeting has yet to be determined.
“The aim is to divert eligible defendants with diagnosed mental health disorders into judicially supervised, community-based treatment, designed and implemented by a team of court staff and mental health professionals,” said DHS Assistant Director Kurt Larrick.
This new docket aims to accept defendants 18 or older who reside in Arlington and who are diagnosed with a serious mental illness, Larrick said. Additionally, only defendants who have been charged with misdemeanors, not felonies, would be eligible for the diversion program. Defendants would need to agree to work with a team of mental health professionals and program staff to enroll in the docket and agree to follow a treatment plan with some supervision.
“These programs are distinguished by several unique elements: a problem-solving focus; a team approach to decision-making; integration of social services; judicial supervision of the treatment process; direct interaction between defendants and the judge; community outreach; and a proactive role for the judge,” Larrick said.
Where Mental Illness and the Law Collide
Officials and advocates say they hope that the docket will help break the cycle of recidivism that some people with mental illnesses fall into.
“Arlington has a significant number of people with mental illnesses that intersect with the criminal justice system,” Deputy Public Defender Amy K. Stitzel told ARLnow. “Evidence-based mental health dockets not only treat instead of criminalizing behavior that is a result of mental illness, they increase treatment engagement, improve quality of life, reduce recidivism and save money.”
“We’re talking about people who are arrested for vagrancy and loitering and trespassing,” said Naomi Verdugo, who has been an activist for people in Arlington with mental illness for several years. “These are largely misdemeanors and stupid things, and it’s because they aren’t well. We would be better off putting services around them than paying to incarcerate people who are just going to reoffend.”
“It is clear that the local and regional jails in Virginia have a substantial number of persons with mental illness in their care, and that this care is costly to the localities and to the Commonwealth,” says a 2017 study of similar programs statewide.
The most recent data from Virginia jail surveys indicate that statewide 1 in 10 of the inmates counted was diagnosed with a serious mental illness, such as PTSD or schizophrenia, and about 20% of all inmates had some kind of mental illness.
Chief Public Defender Brad Haywood said his office has been part of a team discussing mental health improvements for 15 years with the county’s Mental Health Criminal Justice Review Committee, and for the past five years with a subcommittee dedicated to creating a docket, called the Behavioral Health Docket Committee. Haywood strongly supports the idea of a Behavioral Health Docket but noted his office wasn’t notified the county had advanced plans for the docket until recently.
“This is not a transparent approach”
While he applauded DHS for moving the program forward, Haywood said he would have liked more input on the design when organizers decided to require defendants plead guilty before participating in the program.
“From our perspective, until early spring of 2019, the process for drafting and submitting an application for the Mental Health Docket seemed to be moving very slowly,” he said. “I don’t know what changed that took the process to where it is now, to having tight deadlines and short comment periods.”
Commonwealth’s Attorney candidate Parisa Dehghani-Tafti, who recently won the Democratic primary against incumbent prosecutor Theo Stamos, said she heard about the docket for the first time two weeks ago. During her campaign, Tafti advocated for a mental health court as part of larger criminal justice reforms, but said she wasn’t given a chance to comment on the Behavioral Health Docket.
She told ARLnow that she has concerns the new program “criminalizes mental illness” by requiring a plea to participate.
Free Pet Food for Furloughed Feds — Kriser’s Natural Pet, which has stores in the Courthouse area and the Lee-Harrison Shopping Center, is giving a free bag of food for anyone affected by the shutdown who shows a government ID. [Tysons Reporter]
County Clears Trash from TR Island Lot — With National Park Service maintenance workers furloughed, Arlington County crews helped clear overflowing trash from the Theodore Roosevelt Island parking lot last week. [Twitter]
County Opens ‘Safe Haven’ for Families — “The Arlington County Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court Services Unit is pleased to announce the grand opening of its Safe Havens Supervised Visitation and Exchange Center. Located at the Department of Human Services at 2100 Washington Blvd., the program will serve families who have been affected by domestic violence.” [Arlington County]
McAuliffe Vs. Stamos — Former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe has endorsed defense attorney Parisa Tafti over incumbent Theo Stamos in the race for Arlington Commonwealth’s Attorney. All three are Democrats, but McAuliffe is still upset that Stamos “joined Republicans in arguing to the state Supreme Court that his mass rights restoration was unconstitutional.” The endorsement has earned a rebuke from Alexandria’s former Commonwealth’s Attorney, who called it “sad.” [Washington Post, Washington Post]
More Money Woes for Arlington Startup — “Danny Boice, the CEO and founder of private investigation company Trustify Inc., allegedly used company money to pay for personal expenses, including $600,000 for a documentary film about him and his wife, Jennifer Mellon, according to a new lawsuit filed by former Trustify employees seeking back pay and other damages.” [Washington Business Journal]
Forum to Discuss Dementia — “A community forum on Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias will be held on Wednesday, Jan. 23 from 6:45 to 8:45 p.m. at Shirlington Library.” [InsideNova]
A private citizen made the $7,000 donation to the county’s Department of Human Services for a scholarship fund that will pay a portion of the costs to file an N-400 form, the Application for Naturalization.
According to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service’s website, the filing fee is $640, with an extra $85 fee for biometric testing added in some cases for a total of $725.
USCIS waives the fee for applicants whose income is below 150 percent of the Federal Poverty Guidelines and reduces the fee for applicants whose income is between 151 percent and 200 percent of the Federal Poverty Guidelines.
But despite the waivers, county staff said that sometimes people can struggle to pay the reduced fees.
“However, some applicants who qualify for the reduced fee and other applicants who are required to pay the full fee still have difficulty paying for their application,” staff wrote in a report. “As a result, they often delay applying for naturalization even when they are eligible and prepared for their interview.”
Under the proposal, applicants at 151-200 percent of the Federal Poverty Guidelines could receive a $200 scholarship, while those at 201-250 percent could get $360. Applicants’ income will be determined based on adjusted gross income, while they must prove county residency and show they reach USCIS’ English language proficiency guidelines.
Anyone who applies must make an appointment and meet in person for an interview at the Community Outreach Program at the Arlington Mill Community Center (909 S. Dinwiddie Street, Suite 523).
They would be notified within two weeks if they are successful, and would receive a check from DHS made out to USCIS. The applicant would then be responsible for mailing that check and the rest of the filing fee with their application.
Staff recommended the County Board approve the scholarship at its meeting Saturday (January 27).
The county’s Dept. of Human Services is enhancing its suicide prevention strategies based on the Zero Suicide initiative. The overall goal is to reduce the number of suicides in the county — there were 41 reported between 2013 an 2015 — to zero and improve care and outcomes for those seeking help.
Over the summer some county staff attended a seminar to learn more about implementing the Zero Suicide methods. They’ve applied the strategies and have been teaching other employees about them so everyone is on the same page in the new year.
After an assessment earlier this year, staff discovered inconsistencies in the suicide prevention knowledge and responses among the different divisions within DHS, says Sharon Lawrence, Children’s Behavioral Healthcare bureau chief.
“We wanted to establish a universal approach to make sure that we’re addressing suicide,” Lawrence says.
Part of the revamped approach is to step up training and to ensure all relevant DHS staff members are comfortable handling suicide-related discussions and situations.
In addition, the Children’s Behavioral Healthcare division is spearheading one of the major Zero Suicide-related programs in the new year: a pilot to assess the treatment model and address youth “suicidality,” both in identifying those at risk and in ongoing treatment of those individuals. As part of the pilot the division is implementing the Columbia-Suicide Severity Rating Scale, which includes plain-language questions that make it easier for staff to identify young people who are at risk of self-harm and to have more productive follow-up visits.
One reason the department chose to focus on youth for the pilot is that suicide is one of the top three leading causes of death for Americans between the ages of 10 and 24, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Plus, local survey results released in 2014 indicated that 25 percent of Arlington 8th, 10th, and 12th grade students reported feeling sad or hopeless for two or more weeks at a time.
“In the past year-and-a-half we have trained over 300 people in Arlington, including in the schools, to be able to identify when a young person is at risk of harm and may be in distress,” Lawrence says.
Overall, the new methods are “basically a commitment to provide better suicide prevention strategies and tools to DHS staff,” Lawrence says. “Suicide deaths are preventable, that’s the basis of Zero Suicide. The only way to prevent it is by implementing strategies that speak to leadership in terms of the culture you’re setting for staff and the community, [and by] providing training.”
The Department of Human Services’ increased push for suicide prevention also involves asking residents to give feedback via a short online survey about existing services, suicide prevention training and any unaddressed needs.
Lawrence says everyone should speak up if they encounter a person at risk of self-harm, whether it’s a young person or an adult. She suggests thinking of it like the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s “If You See Something, Say Something” campaign.
“People say ‘I don’t know what to say.’ It’s best to say something so you don’t ever feel like you missed an opportunity [to help],” says Lawrence.
She explains that it’s okay not to directly address a person at risk of self-harm. It’s sometimes better to first talk to someone with knowledge of handling such situations, like a counselor or teacher. But Lawrence reiterates the importance of not staying silent.
“There’s always help. There is help in Arlington County,” she says.
If you or someone you know is in immediate danger of self-harm, call 911 or the Department of Human Services’ emergency services line at 703-228-5160. CrisisLink also has a 24-hour crisis hotline at 703-527-4077 or 800-SUICIDE, or text 703-940-0888.
(Updated at 5:55 p.m.) Arlington County has taken a proposed update to its child care regulations off its website after County Board members called the inclusion of certain controversial provisions “troubling.”
As ARLnow.com first reported Monday, the most recent draft of the child care regulations would have required child care centers to encourage mothers to breastfeed and would have dictated what type of milk, juice and birthday treats could be fed to children, among other provisions.
That’s in addition to new staffing and employee education requirements that panicked the operators of small and part-time child care centers, who said such rules would put them out of business or at least drive up the cost of daycare and preschool programs.
“This situation, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that it’s really the most troubled roll-out of a county initiative since the ill-conceived and ill-fated Public Land for Public Good,” said County Board member John Vihstadt. “I really think that this is close to an unmitigated disaster. If our goal is to increase the supply and the affordability of child care throughout Arlington County, this in my view seems to do exactly the opposite.”
Anita Friedman, Director of Arlington’s Dept. of Human Services, said the creation of the new regulations is an “iterative” process that has been underway since 2014, with input from directors of child care centers and consultation from a Kentucky-based nonprofit association.
Despite what she described as a positive public outreach process, Friedman acknowledged that there has been “a lot” of negative feedback, particularly from owners of smaller child care centers and the parents who use them.
“There are some issues with the current version,” she told the Board. “In some places, I think, because some of the enthusiasm of the child care centers and our Arlington Way of striving for the best, we may have probably overreached in terms of the best practices that we want to incorporate in there, that don’t belong in the code.”
That didn’t satisfy new County Board member Katie Cristol, who included affordable child care as part of her policy platform. She called the inclusion of some of the provisions “silly season business.”
“At a time when we have young families leaving this county because it costs as much if not more to have your child in daycare as it does to pay rent… I think we have broader concerns than making sure kids have the absolute best environment,” Cristol said.
“This is really troubling to see this level of best practice conflated with code and with regulation,” she continued. “I am not comfortable inserting unbidden county government in encouraging anybody to tell a mother how to feed her child, whether that’s best practice or regulation.”
“Distraction is not a strong enough word for the real issue at play here. We have been hearing loud and clear from members of our community that this undermines trust in government. It exacerbates a sentiment that Arlington is hostile to child care centers and small businesses.”
Daycare and preschool providers in Arlington are decrying proposed new child care regulations as overly onerous and intrusive.
A 34-page draft of new child care center regulations would set stringent requirements for employee education, require food handling certificates for handing out snacks and would require providers to encourage mothers to breast feed, among numerous other regulatory provisions.
Child care providers — particularly small, part-time operators — are speaking out against the the changes to Chapter 52 of County Code via the county’s online “open comment tool.”
“This document was supposed to clarify things, however, it created more issues,” said one comment.
Many comments focused on new education requirements for the teachers and assistant directors at child care centers. They would have to have a Bachelor’s Degree in education or a similar major and “at least 9 semester credits of advanced study in child development or early childhood education.” Current teachers would have three years to meet that requirement.
The education requirement could financially burden employees, who may have to go back to school to get the necessary credits, and could burden child care centers by raising the cost of hiring new employees, providers said.
“Have you considered the impact this would have on preschools and just how difficult finding teachers with these very narrow qualifications will be?” said one comment. “As former preschool board member who was in charge of hiring for two years, I can tell you that finding highly qualified teachers who are willing to work for preschool pay is already very challenging. You add these new rules and and two thirds of our EXCEPTIONAL staff would not be qualified to teach.”
“I am sure these regulations are well-intentioned and meant to foster excellent Arlington preschools,” said another. “But we already have excellent Arlington preschools. The effect of some of these costly new requirements will be to drastically increase costs, making these excellent schools inaccessible financially for some area families.”
Providers also questioned a requirement that they have a certified food handler on staff if they serve or store food.
“If we need to obtain a license for teachers to distribute Goldfish crackers, this would be unduly burdensome,” said a daycare provider. “We are a part-time center and children are required to bring their lunches from home. The only food we give them are snacks and milk for lunches, if requested.”
Operators of part-time cooperative preschools and daycare centers, which are run largely by volunteers, said that such schools should be exempt from the provisions. Staffing requirements that require specific child-to-adult ratios but only count paid staff, while also prohibiting volunteers from being alone with children, would make it “virtually impossible for parent cooperative preschools to function,” said one commenter.
Some of the most incredulous commentary was reserved for provisions that daycare providers viewed as unnecessary for child safety and overly prescriptive. Among them:
- “The licensee will ensure that mothers are encouraged to breast feed their infants.”
- “The interior of the building must be finished in light or bright colors…”
- “Celebrations (birthdays, special occasions) should include mostly healthy foods or non-food treats.”
- “Children two years of age and older will be served only skim or 1% pasteurized milk.”
- “Staff will promote dental hygiene among children at mealtimes.”
- “Only full-strength (100%) pasteurized fruit juice or full-strength juice diluted with water from a cup will be served to children twelve months of age or older.”
- “… All cribs, cots and mats must be spaced a minimum of 3 feet (36 inches) apart.”
- “[Providers must have a plan for] acquiring, stockpiling, storing and cycling to keep updated emergency food/water and supplies needed to care for children and staff for up to 3 days if shelter-in-place is required…”
- “The licensee will ensure that a trained staff member shall conduct and document a health check of each child every morning upon arrival.”
- “In addition to the application document, the [child care center] must submit… a business plan.”
- “A licensee will have specific arrangements with a health care provider who will provide consultation on both routine and emergency health care issues for children.”
DHS Communications Manager Kurt Larrick has organized the program since 2007. He was called to the front desk after he was told a gentleman had questions about the program.
“I was a little worried at first, but he only had three simple questions for me,” Larrick recalled.
First, the man wanted to know who, specifically, donations assist to ensure money donated stays in the community. Larrick confirmed the donations are strictly for Arlington residents, including low-income families, children in foster care, seniors and people with disabilities.
Next, he asked if any overhead or administrative costs would be taken from the total donation amount. Larrick said he again seemed to give a satisfactory answer, explaining that all donations that come in “go right back out.”
Finally, the man asked if there was a donation limit. Upon hearing there wasn’t, he said he wanted to write a check for $10,000.
“I told him that would be incredible,” Larrick said. “He was a really nice, kind gentleman.”
That $10,000 will be used to purchase hundreds of gift cards for local grocery, clothing, convenience and department stores.
Though the soft deadline for the collection has passed, Larrick said interested residents are still encouraged to contribute to the cause by mailing or hand-delivering donations to DHS.
Last year, the Secret Santa program raised $54,000 in gift cards and donations, and Larrick expects this year’s final count to be about the same. He added the program is mostly supported by small donations from community members of all ages — which are important no matter the amount.
“This donation was obviously huge and very generous,” he said. “But for every donation, big or small, there’s always a great story behind it.”
File photo via Macy’s
Police and paramedics were called to Arlington’s Department of Human Services after a man collapsed and suffered an apparent cardiac arrest in a taxi.
The incident happened just after 2 p.m., outside the DHS building at 2100 Washington Blvd. The man — a 65 year old Arlington resident, according to scanner traffic — was in a Red Top Cab when the driver saw that he was suffering a medical emergency and pulled over.
“The driver noticed that [the passenger] was slumped over in between the seats,” said Arlington County Fire Department spokesman Alvin Guice.
The driver checked on the man and found that he didn’t have a pulse. Someone then ran to the DHS front desk and screamed “call 911,” according to a witness.
“We called 911 to respond to a building visitor who appeared to be in distress,” said DHS spokesman Kurt Larrick.
Passersby helped to pull the man out of the cab so they could render aid, the witness said. By the time paramedics arrived, someone was performing CPR on him. Medics took over and continued performing CPR as they rushed the man to Virginia Hospital Center, where doctors were unable to resuscitate him.
“Unfortunately, he was pronounced [deceased] at the hospital,” Guice said.